The Abduction (by Susan)

Synopsis:  While working on the Ponderosa, Little Joe is kidnapped.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Drama
Rating:  T
Word Count:  5,700


 

A cold wind whistled through the hills as a lone figure rode slowly across the grass. Joe Cartwright shivered as he rode, wishing he had worn something heavier than his green jacket.

I hate checking fence, Joe thought grumpily; it’s hours of boredom interrupted by periods of hard work. Joe was tired. He had stayed later than he had planned last night at the Silver Dollar Saloon. He and his brothers Hoss and Adam, as well as the rest of the Ponderosa hands, had celebrated a successful cattle drive. Joe grinned as he remembered how everyone had loudly speculated about what they would do with the $30,000 Ben Cartwright got for the herd, if the money was theirs. Joe also remembered how everyone laughed when Adam reminded Joe that he had to ride fence at the far end of the ranch today. Being the son of the boss gave him no special privileges when it came his turn to check fences.

Joe sighed. He was cold and he was tired. I’ll check that fence up by Stone Canyon, he thought, and then call it a day. It was already mid-afternoon and Joe felt he had done his share.

As he approached the fence near Stone Canyon, Joe saw that two wooden rails from one section were lying on the ground. It figures, Joe said to himself as he dismounted. He pulled a hammer and some nails out of his saddlebag and walked to the fence. Joe hadn’t been working long when he noticed three riders approaching from the north. He stopped working as the riders neared the fence.

“Can I help you fellows?” Joe asked cautiously, but not really alarmed. The Ponderosa was so large that people were always straying on it by mistake.

“I hope so,” replied one of the riders, a medium-sized man in his forties. “We’re trying to find the road to Virginia City, but we got lost. I’m not even sure I know where we are.”

“You’re on the Ponderosa,” explained Joe with a smile, “and about 30 miles from Virginia City.”

“See, I told you we were going the wrong way,” grumbled another of the riders, a big, heavy-set man. “Some scout you turned out to be.”

“All right, all right,” answered the first man patiently. He turned to Joe. “Would you mind showing us on the map how to get from here to Virginia City?”

“Sure,” Joe replied.

The three men got off their horses and crowded around Joe. The first man had a map in his hands and Joe was starting to look at the map when the second man crashed a pistol butt into his head. Joe instantly crumpled to the ground, unconscious.

“That went slick as a whistle,” said the third man, a tall, lanky fellow. “Just like you said it would.”

The first man nodded. “I’ve been planning this for weeks. Last night in the saloon gave me the last pieces of information I needed.” He turned to the heavy-set man. “Tie him on his horse and let’s get out of here.”

*****

Joe groaned as he gradually regained consciousness. His head hurt and his body felt stiff. He opened his eyes but at first, all he could see was darkness. He blinked several times, and, as his eyes adjusted to the murky light, he realized he was laying face-down on the ground in a dimly lit room with what looked like stone walls. Joe pulled himself up to a sitting position and looked around. The room was narrow and long, ending in a rounded wall. He began to understand that he was in a cave of some sort. He turned and saw a small shaft of light coming from what appeared to be a door.

After struggling to his feet, Joe walked slowly to the door, his balance still a bit shaky. The light was coming through a small window with bars located about eye-level on the door, which was solid iron. Joe searched for a way to open the door, but there was no handle or latch, at least on his side of the barrier. He put his face to the window and looked out.

The cave on the other side of the door was as wide as his was narrow. To his right, Joe could see three beds with blankets and a small wood-burning stove. A lantern hung on a peg in the wall was burning brightly. He looked left and saw the three riders he had met earlier sitting around a wooden table, playing cards. Beyond them was an opening with some bushes or other material covering the entrance.

Joe started banging on the door. “Hey!” he shouted loudly at the three men. “What’s going on? Let me out of here!”

“Sounds like our guest is finally awake,” observed the medium-sized man, never looking up from his cards.

Joe banged harder on the door and yelled even louder. “Hey, didn’t you hear me? Let me out of here.”

The medium-sized man calmly laid down his cards. “I’m out,” he announced. Leaning back casually in his chair, he looked at Joe. “Just relax, son,” he advised calmly. “You’re not going anywhere for awhile”.

“What’s going on? What do you want?” Joe asked angrily.

“From you, nothing,” replied the same man. “From your father, $30,000. We figure he’ll pay that much to get you back. And we know he has the money.”

Joe slumped against the door. Kidnappers! They wanted his Pa’s money from the cattle drive, money that was ear-marked for a new section of land to add to the Ponderosa. He also knew he had seen the kidnapper’s faces and that didn’t bode well for him. Kidnappers usually didn’t let victims who could identify them go home, at least not alive.

With a grim expression on his face, Joe slowly explored the cave. The walls were solid rock and smooth and the dirt floor had been swept clean. There were no sticks or rocks in the cave, nothing he could use to pry open the door or as a weapon. Joe walked back to the door. He ran his fingers around the sides of the door, looking for some type of gap, but the door was tight against the frame. As he explored his prison, Joe could hear the men in the other room talking.

“This sure is a sweet set-up, Matthews,” said the tall, lanky man. “Are you sure nobody will find us here?”

Matthews – the middle-sized man – nodded. “I told you, Greeley. This was an old ammunition depot for the Army. They used it during the Indian Wars. The Army doesn’t exactly publicize its ammunition depots.”

“How long were you in the Army?” Greeley asked.

The heavy-set man laughed. “Do you mean with or without time in the guardhouse?”

“Shut up, Brumfield,” snarled Matthews. He turned to Greeley. “I was in for about five years. Spent almost six months on guard duty at this place. That’s how I knew about it. All it took was a little fixing up, and this place is as cozy as home. The entrance to the cave is hidden by bushes, and the corral for the horses is down behind some trees. Nobody could find this place in a million years.”

Joe’s shoulders drooped as he listened to the trio. So far, he hadn’t been able to find a way out of his prison. The door, the walls, everything was impenetrable. And it seemed unlikely anyone would find the cave. He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. He couldn’t just give up; he’d think of some way to escape.

Lowering himself to the ground, Joe sat on the floor, his back to the door. Think, he said to himself, think! He had to get them to open the door; that was his only hope. He gradually realized that it was warmer near the door than in the rest of the cave. The heat from the other room must be seeping in through the window, he thought. Away from the door, the cave was much colder.

Jumping to his feet, Joe began banging on the door with his fist. “Hey!” he shouted.

“Now what?” Brumfield, the big man, asked grumbling.

“I’m freezing in here. I need a blanket or something,” called Joe.

“It’s not that cold,” Brumfield answered. “You’ll live.”

“If you don’t return me to my father alive and well, you’ll have a posse as big as an army after you,” Joe threatened.

“They’d have to find us first,” chuckled Greeley.

“That’s enough, you two,” Matthews said. He looked at Joe. “Brumfield’s right; it’s not that cold. You’ll be a little uncomfortable, that’s all. I think a tough kid like you can stand it.”

“Well, how about something to eat and drink?” asked Joe. “Or are you going to starve me to death?”

“It won’t hurt you to miss a meal, and if you get thirsty, we’ll pour some water in your mouth through the window,” replied Matthews. “Forget it, son. We’re not going to open that door.”

After banging his hand against the door in frustration, Joe started pacing the cave, trying to think of some way to get out. He soon became aware that the talk and noise from the other room had stopped. Walking back to the door, he peered through the window. All three men were wrapped in blankets and asleep on the cots.

Joe walked for awhile longer, but realized he was tiring himself for no reason. Finally, he lay on the floor near the door, curling his body against the cold. I’ll just rest for awhile and then try again to think of a plan, he thought as he drifted off to sleep.

The smell of coffee and beans woke Joe. He slowly stood and stretched, trying to ease some of the stiffness from his body. As his stomach rumbled with hunger, Joe walked over and looked out the window of his prison door.

The three men appeared to be finishing a meal. Matthews got up from the table, stuffing a folded paper in his shirt pocket as he rose. “I’ve got to get going,” he announced. “Old man Cartwright and the rest of those hands must be searching for the kid by now. I want to slip the note under the door while they’re gone and then get to the meeting place.”

“I don’t understand why you want to meet with Cartwright,” said Greeley. “Why don’t you just tell him where to drop the money?”

“Because if the Army taught me nothing else, it taught me to leave nothing to chance,” answered Matthews. “I want to make sure Cartwright will pay up. And I want to be sure he knows what will happen if he tries anything funny. I’ll be back by dark. Don’t forget to feed the kid; I might need him and he won’t be any use to me if he’s half-starved.”

Brumfield and Greeley nodded as Matthews turned and left.

As he backed away from the door, Joe began thinking. This could be his chance, but he’d have to be careful and do it right. He might not get another one.

On the other side of the door, the two men took their time getting around to preparing a plate of food for Joe. It was long after Matthews had left when Joe heard a key rattling and a latch sliding open. Sitting in the semi-darkness at the back of the cave, Joe heard the door creak as it slowly swung outward. The outline of a big man filled the doorway.

“Stay where you are,” ordered Brumfield. “I’ll lay the grub here by the door.”

Joe said nothing. He merely watched as Brumfield put a plate of beans and a cup of coffee on the ground.

“Not so high and mighty now, are you?” Brumfield sneered. “One night in here has knocked all the fight out of you.” The big man laughed at the look of dejection on Joe’s face. “Well, you just behave yourself and maybe we’ll let you go home to your Pa. I want you sitting away from the door when I come in to pick up these dishes.”

“I’ll do whatever you say,” Joe mumbled with a tone of resignation in his voice.

Brumfield laughed again as he backed out of the cave.

As the door slammed shut and the latch slid closed, Joe grinned to himself. He hoped the kidnappers would think he was giving up. Joe knew he was gambling, but so far, it was working.

Moving to the front of the cave, Joe picked up the plate of food. Even though he was ravenous, he forced himself to eat slowly, almost willing his body to absorb every ounce of nutrition from his sparse meal. He needed some energy for his next move.

After eating the beans, Joe sat down near the back of the cave, placing the cup and plate near his left hand. He had deliberately left some coffee in the cup. Now all he had to do was wait.

It seemed like a long time before Brumfield came back into the cave, although Joe knew it couldn’t have been more than an hour. Joe tried to look as if he didn’t care when the door opened, even though his heart was pounding and his muscles were tense.

Brumfield looked at him curiously, then walked over to the dishes. “Hand me that plate and cup,” snapped the kidnapper. As Joe slowly handed him the plate, Brumfield reached down for the cup. Joe snatched the cup from the floor and threw the liquid in the big man’s face.

The big man howled as Joe rushed past him. Joe reached the half-opened door and shoved it as hard as he could. The door swung open faster than the man on the other side expected and he fell backwards as Joe streaked past him.

“Get him!” yelled Brumfield from the cave.

Joe overturned the table as he rushed by, knocking Greeley down again. He ran to the entrance, feeling exhilarated at his successful escape. As he reached the mouth of the cave, though, Joe realized a tangle of rope and bushes blocked his way.

Desperately Joe pushed at the web of rope and branches, looking for a hole in the barrier. He finally spotted an opening and was crouching to enter it when a hand grabbed the back of his jacket at the neck. Joe was jerked back from the entrance and flung to the ground. Looking up, he saw Brumfield and Greeley looming over him. He tried to scramble to his feet but Brumfield landed a powerful punch on his chin. Joe fell to the ground, stunned.

“Try to make fools of us, will ya!” Greeley snarled as he hauled Joe to his feet. Joe sagged in his grasp, his head still reeling.

“I’ll teach him a lesson he’ll never forget,” Brumfield said. “Hold him up.”

His arms pinned behind his back by Greeley, Joe tried to struggle free. Suddenly, punches began raining down on him, first to his face, then into his stomach, and back to his face. Joe felt himself falling as Greeley let him go. He groaned and gasped for breath. He lifted his head, looked at Brumfield and passed out.

*****

Greeley and Brumfield were sitting at the table, playing cards when Matthews walked in. “How did it go?” asked Greeley as Matthews walked to the stove and poured a cup of coffee.

“Get Cartwright out here,” Matthews said in reply.

Greeley and Brumfield looked at each other nervously. “What do you want him for?” asked Brumfield. “Didn’t old man Cartwright agree to the ransom?”

“Just get him out here,” ordered Matthews as he sipped his coffee.

Once again, Greeley and Brumfield glanced at each other. Then Brumfield shrugged and stood up. He grabbed a large key ring from a peg on the wall and walked to the iron door. With a sigh, he unlocked the door and slid the latch.

In the dim light, the big man saw Joe lying curled on his side in the middle of the cave. “Cartwright, get up and get out here,” barked Brumfield. There was no reaction from Joe. Brumfield strode angrily to where the young man was laying. “Did you hear me? Get up,” he repeated. He roughly pushed Joe’s shoulder, knocking him onto his back.

Joe’s left eye was turning an ugly purple, and bruises were visible on his chin and right cheek. A trickle of blood ran from a cut above his right eye. His bottom lip was cut and swollen.

Brumfield hauled Joe to his feet. “Move,” he ordered. Joe took a step but his knees began to buckle. Brumfield grabbed him under the arms and dragged him into the other room.

Matthews showed no surprise at Joe’s appearance when Brumfield dragged him to a chair by the table. “What happened to him?” asked Matthews as he calmly continued to sip his coffee.

“He tried to get away,” answered Greeley nervously. “Brumfield and I thought we ought to teach him some manners.”

Nodding, Matthews turned back to the stove. He refilled the coffee cup, then walked to where Joe was slumped in a chair. “Here,” Matthews said, extending the cup. “Drink this; it’ll make you feel better.”

Lifting his head, Joe peered at Matthews suspiciously. “Go ahead and drink,” urged Matthews. Joe slowly took the cup into his hands. He sipped the coffee, wincing as the hot liquid poured over his sore lip. No one said a word. Joe kept drinking, glancing furtively at the men around him. Finally, the cup was empty, and Matthews took it from him.

“Feeling better?” Matthews asked. “Is your head clear?” Joe nodded slowly. “Good,” Matthews said heartily. He pulled a piece of paper and a stub of a pencil from his shirt pocket. “Your Pa is a cautious man. He wants some proof you’re still alive before he pays. So, I want you to write him a letter.” Matthews placed the paper and pencil on the table.

Joe barely glanced at the table. “No,” he stated.

Joe flinched as Brumfield raised his fist and aimed it toward his captive’s face. Just as the hand was coming down, Matthews grabbed Brumfield’s arm. “Hold it,” Matthews said. “That won’t accomplish anything. He can’t write if he’s out cold.” Brumfield lowered his arm but stared threatening at the young man sitting at the table. Matthews turned to Joe. “Now, son, I want you to be sensible and write that note.”

“No,” Joe repeated defiantly. “Why should I help you? You’re going to kill me anyway.”

“Well, maybe we will and maybe we won’t. But that’s not the point,” replied Matthews evenly. “You see, if you don’t write that letter, then we don’t get our money. Tomorrow, somebody — maybe your Pa, maybe one of your brothers — is going to a spot to pick up that letter. Only there won’t be any letter, meaning we won’t get our ransom, and that’s going to make us very angry. Now, we just might take out our anger on the fact that there’s going to be no money by shooting whoever comes to pick up the letter.”

Joe looked at Matthews, then Brumfield and Greeley. “You’d do that, wouldn’t you?” he said bitterly.

“You bet we would,” answered Greeley with a grin.

For a moment, Joe just stared at Matthews. Then, with an angry swipe, he grabbed the pencil in his left hand and turned to face the table. “You win. Tell me what to write,” he agreed with resignation.

Matthews smiled. “You write exactly what I tell you. ‘Dear Pa:  I’m alive and well’.” Joe glanced up at Matthews with an ironic look on his battered face. “Just write what I say,” Matthews told his prisoner. “Let’s see. ‘Bring $30,000 in gold to Stone Canyon at sundown and put it under the rock that looks like a loaf of bread at the end of the canyon. Don’t try any tricks. If you do what they say, I’ll be released. If there’s a posse or any tricks, I’ll be killed.’ And then sign it.”

Joe finished writing and slammed the pencil down. “Here’s your letter; I hope you’re happy,” he spat out furiously.

Picking up the paper, Matthews read it carefully. “That’s fine,” he acknowledged. “Just fine.” Matthews turned to Brumfield. “Take our guest back to his room. And don’t let anything happen to him. We need him alive until we get the ransom.”

“Come on,” Brumfield said, reaching for Joe’s arm. Joe angrily brushed him aside and slowly rose. He limped toward his prison, arms hugging his sore stomach and ribs. “Maybe we’ll just go ahead and shoot your old man anyway,” Brumfield declared with a laugh as Joe neared the door.

Full of anger and frustration, Joe turned toward the big man with a look of fury. “You’re scum,” he yelled with uncontrolled rage. Joe took a wild swing at Brumfield, landing a glancing blow on the big man’s chin.

Roaring with anger, Brumfield charged Joe, knocking him backward into the cave. He grabbed Joe by lapels of his jacket, then punched him with short jabs into the mid-section. Brumfield shoved the doubled-up figure away from him, watching with satisfaction as his victim crumbled to the floor. Joe lay on the ground, trying to catch his breath as the big man approached him. He was starting to get up when Brumfield swiftly kicked him in the ribs. The big man was lifting his leg for another kick when Matthews called at him from the door, “That’s enough. I told you we need him alive.”

Brumfield stared for a while at the man sprawled on the ground, looking for some sign of resistance. Finally, he shrugged, turned and walked out of the small cave. The door was slammed shut behind him, followed by the sound of the latch sliding and the key turning. Then the cave was silent except for the labored breathing from the body on the floor.

*****

The kidnappers woke from an untroubled sleep early the next morning. “Better check on Cartwright,” Matthews said with a yawn.

Walking to the iron door, Greeley looked in. Joe was lying curled on his side in the middle of the cave; Greeley could hear his captive’s raspy breathing. “He’s still alive,” the lanky man called over his shoulder.

“Good,” answered Matthews. “Let’s pack up this stuff and get moving.  We need to drop off this letter and get to the canyon. I want to be sure we’re there way ahead of time, just in case Ben Cartwright tries something tricky.”

“Want me to go in and finish off the kid?” Brumfield asked with a trace of anticipation in his voice.

“Don’t you ever listen?” replied Matthews in an exasperated voice. “We need to keep him alive until we get the money. If something goes wrong, he may be our ace in the hole.”

“Yeah, but what if something doesn’t go wrong? What then?” asked Brumfield.

“Look,” Matthews explained patiently. “We leave him here. If something goes wrong, we can come back and get him. If nothing goes wrong, well, the shape he’s in, that kid will be lucky if he lasts more than a day. Now, get your stuff and let’s move.”

*****

It was some time before Joe reluctantly woke. Stabs of pain racked his body as he tried to move. He slowly stood and began staggering toward the door. He stumbled and fell to the ground as he neared the entrance to the cave. With a groan, he pulled himself into a sitting position, back against the door. Joe was breathing hard, and sweat formed on his forehead from the effort and the pain. His face hurt, and his ribs ached. All Joe wanted to do was rest.

Gradually, he became aware of the quiet that was too quiet. Dreading what he would find, Joe stood and looked out the window in the door. The chairs were empty and beds stripped of blankets. No smoke was curling from the stove and the lantern was burning low. His eyes searched the larger cave, but Joe knew no one was in it.

Pounding his fist on the door, Joe began yelling. “Help! Can anyone hear me? Help! Get me out of here.” Pain shot through his ribs as he gasped for air. He slid his arm through the narrow bars of the window, stretching to reach the lock, but his hand dangled a few feet above the latch. He pulled his arm back inside the cave and tried to ignore the pain as he began shouting and pounding again. He yelled until his voice was hoarse and the pain in his side was almost unbearable. Only silence answered his plea. Joe slumped against the door, then slid down to a sitting position again. You can’t give up, he said to himself. Those kidnappers will release me. Or Pa and Adam and Hoss will find me. You’ve been in tight spots before and always gotten out. This is no different. Joe kept trying to convince himself that things would work out. He wished he believed it.

His world reduced to the dimly lit cave, Joe lost track of time. Pain and fatigue caused his eyelids to grow heavy. Slowly, his eyes closed and Joe fell into a deep sleep,

Waking with a start, Joe looked around, confused about where he was and why he was lying on the ground. It took a moment for him to clear his head and remember. He had no idea how long he had slept but he guessed it had been quite a while – hours, perhaps. Feeling almost indifferent about the answer, Joe wondered how much time has passed since he had been abandoned in his prison. His brain felt muddled, as if he were lying in a fog.

Suddenly, he shivered.

The cave getting colder; Joe could see a fine mist being formed by his breath. He knew that if the temperature kept dropping, he would freeze. Joe tried rubbing his arms and moving his legs to keep the circulation going in his limbs. He couldn’t believe how those simple movements seemed to tire him. His eyes grew heavy and he dozed again.

When he woke the second time, Joe was aware of feeling incredibly cold. The temperature in the cave had dropped significantly; it was almost certainly below the freezing level. His hands and feet were almost numb; his face felt like it was made of ice. Joe began to shiver violently. He couldn’t remember ever feeling as cold as this. He blew on his hands, trying to warm them, and then shoved them deep into the pockets of his jacket. He flexed his legs, trying to get some feeling back into them.

Forcing himself to stand, Joe took a small step, and then another. “It’s going to be all right,” he said aloud, trying to convince himself. “You just have to wait until someone gets here. Somebody will find you soon.” He continued to force himself to walk until he reached the rear of the cave. Then he turned and started back toward the door. He paced the length of the cave with slow, deliberate steps. The pacing seemed to warm his feet a bit, but it also seemed to drain his strength. By the fourth circuit, he could barely walk. He had taken only three steps from the back of the cave when his strength simply gave out and he crumpled to the floor. Joe tried to force himself to stand but he just couldn’t do it. “Get up, get up” he ordered himself in a weak voice. He tried again to stand but fell back to the dirt floor. His teeth were chattering and his body was shivering. Finally, he quit fighting. Maybe it’s better to just lay here, he thought dully. He couldn’t seem to think straight. Joe felt himself sliding into a deep sleep. Pa will find me; I just have to wait for him, Joe thought as blackness closed in around him.

*****

Awareness gradually seeped into Joe’s brain. He was aware he was lying on his side on a cot, with something soft pillowing his head. He was aware of blankets wrapped tightly around him, and was grateful for their warmth. He was aware of a dull ache in his ribs and tried not to breathe too hard. But, most of all, he was aware he was alive.

Joe still felt chilled; the cold seemed to have settled deep in his bones. He wanted to move, but he was too tired. He wanted to open his eyes, but that also took more energy than he had. He was trying to decide what to do when he heard a voice from a long way off.

“Ben, Ben? You in there, Ben?” the voice called.

Another voice very close to Joe answered. “I’m here, Roy.”

“How is he?” said the first voice, sounding much closer.

“He’s alive. Those animals beat him half to death and then left him to die. He was almost frozen by the time the boys and I found him,” the second voice answered grimly.

“Where are Hoss and Adam?” the first voice asked.

“Adam went for a doctor and Hoss is going back to the ranch to get a wagon. Joe’s got some cracked ribs. I didn’t want to risk putting him on a horse, not the shape he’s in.”

Joe’s muddled brain finally recognized the first voice as belonging to Sheriff Roy Coffee, and the second to his father, Ben Cartwright. He wanted even more to open his eyes and speak, but he just couldn’t seem to make his body work.

“This is some place,” declared Roy in amazement. “It’s a good thing that trap of yours worked. We would have never found it on our own.”

“Yes, the trapped worked,” Ben agreed in a grim voice. “That was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. If something had gone wrong… As it is, the boys and I almost didn’t make it in time.”

Joe finally forced his eyes open. “Pa,” he whispered in a weak voice. He swallowed hard and tried again. “Pa,” he said a bit louder.

Ben Cartwright was sitting in a chair next to the cot, looking up at Roy Coffee who was standing next to him. At the sound of Joe’s voice, Ben turned swiftly toward the cot. “Joe,” he crooned soothingly, stroking his son’s head. “Everything is going to be all right. Everything is going to be fine.” Ben looked over his shoulder to Roy. “Get me some coffee. It’s heating on the stove.” He turned back to his son. “Joe, we need to get some coffee in you to warm you up. Do you think you can sit up a little?”

When Joe nodded, Ben helped his son to a sitting position, trying not to be upset by the soft groans from Joe. He moved to sit on the edge of the cot, letting Joe’s head rest on his shoulder. Roy handed Ben a half-filled cup. He nodded his thanks and put the cup to Joe’s mouth. “Now drink this slow,” Ben said. Joe sipped the hot liquid gratefully.

“Did you get them, Pa?” Joe asked after a few sips.

“Yes, we got them,” Ben answered.

“Your Pa really slickered them,” advised Roy. “We figured they’d ask for the money to be left someplace around Stone Canyon. That’s where you disappeared from and that’s where one of them fellows met with your Pa. Your Pa had two men hiding along every trail, path and deer track within five miles of Stone Canyon. We let them kidnappers pick up the ransom and ride off. But as soon as a pair of your Pa’s men spotted them, one man rode for the posse while the other one followed them, leaving a trail a mile wide. We waited until they were camped, then jumped them. We never even had to fire a shot.”

“I’m sorry it took so long, Joe,” Ben apologized as he watched his son sip the coffee. “I had to wait until we were sure we could take them without any shooting. I didn’t want to risk a gun fight where all of them could be killed. We had to take them alive.”

“I know,” Joe said. “I’m just surprised they told you where to find me.”

Roy chuckled. “Your brother Hoss took care of that. He almost squeezed the life out of the tall one before he agreed to talk. Once Hoss let him go, that yahoo couldn’t draw a map fast enough.”

“I never thanked you for letting Hoss get away with that, Roy,” Ben told the sheriff.

“Ben, I think kidnappers are just about the lowest creatures on earth. And you know how I feel about Joe. It wasn’t hard to let Hoss do it. Besides, I knew he wouldn’t really hurt that fellow, just give him some sore ribs,” replied Roy.

“Did you get the money back?” Joe asked. When Ben nodded, Joe added, “Pa, I’m sorry,”

“Sorry? What for?” asked Ben, genuinely puzzled.

“I’m sorry I almost cost you $30,000 and that new piece of land,” Joe answered.

Ben shook his head. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. The money was never important. I would have given them the whole Ponderosa to get you back.”

Suddenly, Joe felt warm inside and not just from the coffee. He finished the drink and slowly laid back on the cot.

“You take it easy,” Ben advised gently. “The doctor will be here soon.”

Joe nodded, then smiled. “Pa?” he said. “One thing:  I really hate riding fence.”

Ben laughed. “All right. After we get you home and back on your feet, we’ll talk about it. Now get some rest.”

Joe grinned as he closed his eyes and settled comfortably on the cot. Home. He couldn’t think of a better sounding word.

*****End*****

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